Battling the Bulge in the Breadbasket of Italy

85_bari_preparazione_delle_orecchietteCarbohydrate. It’s the kind of word that causes the weight conscious to break into a fearful sweat.  Banned from popular diets around the world a carb-free existence banishes rice, potatoes, bread, pasta, pastries, pizza and, horror of horrors, wine.  Trust me, I know. I am familiar with the programmes of best selling authors Mr Dukan and Mr Atkins and have successfully followed their diets (except for the wine part). I doubt very much however that either of these men are collecting many royalties from book sales down here in the carbohydrate saturated heel of Italy. Attempts to explain to waiters that “I don’t eat bread,” or “I’d like my meat without potatoes” are met with either pitifully bemused  looks or those of contempt and confusion.  I decide to go with the “when in Rome” theory and do what the Puglians do when in Puglia.

Known as the ‘breadbasket of Italy’ this region’s culinary buzz phrase of the moment is ‘cucina povera,’ or ‘poor cuisine,’ a concept coined by the use of the simplest, freshest ingredients grown locally and produced by traditional methods. Puglia produces more than 80 percent of the country’s pasta. Semolina is the main ingredient in the famous ‘orecchiette‘ or ‘little ear’ pasta. 250px-Pane_altamuraI saw women in the old part of Bari hand rolling this egg-free pasta in the streets, painstakingly shaping each tiny round to perfection with a knife so that the uniform size will allow even cooking. It is served in a variety of ways but very often with turnip tops, creamy ricotta cheese or blood red fresh tomato passata. Taralli, a cross between a bread and a biscuit, look like little dough circles and make a regular appearance at tables in Bari and beyond. Fennel seeds and chilli can be added to vary the flavour and sweet varieties also abound. They are served in tiny baskets as an accompaniment to the evening apperitivo  or as an addition to the main meal. They are quite addictive, To start means not being able to stop.

In Altamura, the first town in Puglia to receive a DOC (Protected Designation of Origin) for it’s famous dough, one is welcomed with a roadside sign that simply says “City of Bread.” When McDonalds famously tried to open a store there some years ago one town resident was quoted as saying “We are fighting a war. Our bullets are focaccia. And bread.” Needless to say that in a region so intent on fighting for the pride and reputation of it’s local food and produce, the chain store did not, thankfully, survive. In the much smaller towns of Puglia communal bread ovens are still in use. Women share the tradition of bread baking over the town gossip with their children playing at their feet.

Another specialty regional dish is fava bean puree. Fava or broad beans are traditionally sown on November 2nd, known as All Saint’s Day. fruit for sale below my balconyAfter harvest very small cakes called ‘fava dei morti’ or ‘beans of the dead’ are hand made to celebrate. The fava bean puree is served with a side dish of bitter dandelion greens sauteed in olive oil, with a basket of crostini for dipping or stirred through risotto for a double carbohydrate blast. On one occasion mine appeared sprinkled with ruby red pomegranate seeds giving the dish a glossy finish and a rather North African flavour.

The humble potato is a Puglian staple. It appears regularly at the table in different forms: sliced paper thin as a topping for pizza, roasted in olive oil and served with black olives and tiny red tomatoes as an accompaniment to fish or lamb, or as the basis of a dish called tiedda along with rice and mussels. Eaten either hot or cold this  dish gets it’s name from the pot in which it is cooked. I have seen Italians at the beach or in the park eating tiedda with big spoons straight from the dish, picnic style.

And a few facts about the region’s wine. Puglia produces more wine than anywhere else in Italy.IMG_8959 More wine than all of Germany. That means temptation. The constantly mild climate here allows the grapes to ripen all year round and as a result they have a very high sugar content. The well established primitivo is my personal favourite possibly because the grape is genetically linked to the Californian zinfandel varietal and therefore familiar to my Australian tastebuds (it has nothing at all  to do with the high alcohol content of course!)  But to be really honest the facts don’t seem to matter much. At the end of a long, hot summer’s day a glass of crisp, cool wine of any variety is just the thing. I love the way you are encouraged to drink it before it gets too warm. Not to worry though if you can’t manage as the waiters will often come and tip what you have left into a freshly chilled glass.

It is tempting to keep writing; about the fresh seafood that the fishermen deliver in their little blue boats to the harbour every morning, about the abundance of colourful vegetables sold off the back of tiny vehicles that can navigate the traffic free alleyways, about the 65 million olive trees that produce the golden oil sitting on every table at every restaurant in the region. man fixing fishing netBut there is a goat roasting on a spit in the nearby trattoria and a group of friends wait to begin eating. I am lured away by the smell of the potatoes roasting, the freshly baked bread, the pasta cooking to al dente perfection. And that is just for starters. After dinner we search out the town’s best gelato and I indulge in a calorific  millafoglio. The custard inside is the best I have ever tasted. I ask for the recipe. “Signora,” she says, “I can’t give away the in house secrets.” Ah well. It’s probably for the best.

Yes, all things considered it’s a carbohydrate nightmare. But it’s also the stuff  my dreams are made of.

** After making this post I received a comment from a friend in Bari and she kindly offered me the ‘official’ recipe for tiedda. She says “this dish is a Barese identification sign more important than the national flag. It’s worth trying!”

Ingredients for 4 people: 250 grams of white rice, 1.5 kilos of potatoes, 500 grams of mussels (fresh not frozen), bunch of parsley, 1 garlic, 1 onion, 70 grams of grated pecorino cheese, 300 grams of small red tomatoes (canned or tinned is forbidden!), 6 spoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper. A ceramic tiedda is best for the dish.

Preparation and cooking: Scrub the mussels so the surface is cleared of beard. Open them using a knife and keep the flesh inside one of the shell halves. Wash and cut the potatoes into thin rounds. Take the garlic and chop finely. Wash, skin and deseed the tomatoes and cut them into round slices. Wash the rice.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.Take your tiedda and cover base with olive oil (not too much). Cut the onion into rings and cover the base of dish. Add chopped garlic and parsley, half of the tomato pieces and a handful of grated pecorino cheese. Layer the potatoe slices over the top. Flavour with salt and pepper. Layer the mussels over the potatoes and cover with rice. Add any leftover garlic and parsley and a second layer of tomatoes and potatoes. Season with more salt and pepper and add a drizzle of olive oil. Cook for 40 minutes or until the rice and potatoes are cooked through.

Many thanks to Emanuela Desy for this recipe. She suggests serving it with a crisp white wine. Buon appetito!





Trulli Magic…



The region of Puglia, or Apuglia as it is known in Italy, covers much of the heel and the boot of the country. There is a lot to see of interest in the area including the capital city of Bari, known as the ‘Milan of the south’, the famous baroque city of Lecce, the white town or ‘citta bianca’ Ostuni, the fishing villages of Polignano a Mare and Monopoli and a stunning coastline of beaches and coves for swimming. Puglia is also renowned for it’s specialty food and wine. It is known as the ‘breadbasket’ of Italy as it produces more than eighty percent of the country’s pasta. Orrecchiete pasta, shaped like small ears, can still be seen being made on the old streets of Bari by local women. The region also produces the famous primitivo wine, much of the country’s fish and more olive oil than the rest of the country combined.IMG_8835

With all of this and more on offer I have flown down from Milan to spend a couple of weeks holiday. For the last few days I have been in the town of Martina Franca. This is another Puglian town with a noteworthy centro storico, famous in the summer months for it’s belcanto festival. I was lucky enough to see my friend, soprano Jessica Pratt, singing the lead role in the rarely performed Giovanna d’Arco by Verdi at the Palazzo Ducale. It was a wonderful night’s entertainment in a stunning setting. But now it is time for us to take a ‘real’ break.

We arrive at Masseria Fumerola early one afternoon at the very beginning of August. It is hot. Very, very hot. There is not a breath of air and it is siesta time, so the silence is palpable. The heat is almost a tangible thing. It eminates off the bright white of the conical trulli rooves, off the white, rough hewn stone walls and off the incredible, sparkling blue water of the swimming pool. The initial impression is one of stark beauty. Beautiful, gnarled olive trees offer shade from the unrelenting sun, gigantic flowering cacti grow in the hard earth and the scent of wild rosemary hangs in the air; it is possible we have arrived for a few days in paradise.IMG_8806

We are shown to our accommodation and settle in to our surprisingly cool trullo. Originally constructed out of dry stone as simple farm dwellings or shelters for animals, they feature one room under each cone and extra rooms in additional alcoves. In the 19th century the dry stone was easily deconstructed when the property tax inspectors paid a call. I think to myself that hopefully the 21st century Italian tax men are on holiday in August and that with any luck we can keep the roof over our heads for the next five days! The decor is authentic and neutral, in keeping with the rustic style.IMG_8956 Trulli are notoriously difficult to heat in winter and our lounge room features a large, stone fireplace which we won’t be needing. The bedroom is comfortable and the bathroom is large and modern. We have a private terrace complete with a lush, green lawn.


IMG_8947Staff at the masseria are unobtrusive and unfailingly helpful and smiling. Nothing is too much trouble during our stay. This place has the feel of a small, country house rather than a hotel. We spend much of our lives in hotels and this is exactly what we are looking for…the feeling of a home away from home. Breakfasts are on the terrace and feature home made Italian style cakes and pastries. Leisurely, simple lunches are taken near the pool in the former pig sty, no evidence of the past remaining. A friendly girl named Paula delivers fresh salads of mozzarella and bright red tomatoes with barley bread from Lecce accompanied by glasses of crisp, cool white wine. IMG_8888We sit on white painted chairs at rustic wooden tables. It is a perfect setting and I am reminded of my childhood Enid Blyton books in which food consumed outside by the Famous Five always tasted better. I can’t disagree with them here. Every flavour and colour seems brighter and more enhanced. Dinners are a simple affair on the terrace beginning with a spread of delicious antipasti: marinated artichokes, grilled zucchini, eggplants and peppers, creamy mozzarella cheeses, frittata, homemade focaccia, prawns and salamis. After a main course of fish or meat a gelato is offered, followed, if you so desire, by a limoncello in the lounge room. We chat amicably with other guests after dinner…it is almost like a family occasion and we thoroughly enjoy the intimacy of the whole experience.

The long, incredibly warm summer days are spent by the swimming pool. As the sun moves through the cloudless blue sky so we move our sun lounges to follow the shade. There are bikes for hire at reception although I notice they are in the same place when we leave as when we arrive. IMG_8935I am glad we are not the only sedentary ones. It is too hot to move too far or too fast. We both have plans to learn some music for upcoming jobs but the scores lie closed next to our sun beds and remain there unopened all week.

Evenings are glorious. A faint breeze blows and the sun turns the fields to a golden yellow. Swallows swoop down to the empty swimming pool looking for insects, wasps buzz and bats fly silently overhead. The joy here is in the simple pleasures.

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Observations from a sunlounge…an irreverant take on the Italian Beach…

IMG_8797 Only bikinis shall be worn. The one piece does not exist. The bigger the woman the smaller the bikini should be…preferably the G-string variety.

The “small bathers principal” also applies to men. Your beer gut should completely obscure your swimming costume so that when you face someone front on it actually appears as if you are totally naked (in Australia we call this the ‘verandah over the tool shed syndrome.’) My European friends are welcome to ask me to define both ‘verandah’ and ‘toolshed’…preferably over a drink.

Men should either shave their entire bodies or look like chimpanzees. No middle ground acceptable.

It is compulsory for all men to totally ignore their wives, girlfriends and mistresses to stare blatantly at women exiting and entering the water and say in an exaggerated undertone “mamma mia, mio dio, che bella!” You do this automatically regardless of whether the subject is bella or not. Because we can’t see your toolshed (it’s obscured by your verandah), we will thankfully never know if you are genuine or not. PS…don’t worry, you will be forgiven for this behaviour. We know you are religious because your medallion, when not obscured by a forest of chest hair, is brighter and more dazzling than the sun.

Children should run around all day in the extreme summer heat without a hat, protective clothing or sunscreen. In fact naked is best. The ‘slip, slop, slap’ campaign has not reached Southern Italy (in any case slipping, slopping and slapping would make you look unattractive and that is unacceptable). Skin cancer doesn’t exist in the Northern Hemisphere anyway.

When a child needs to wee pick them up and encourage them to piddle into the moat of their sandcastle or into their plastic bucket. Convenience is best. In fact, if your child’s sandcastle or bucket is not available then encourage them to piddle in/on someone else’s. I mean, if you move away from your chosen spot someone might come and steal it…or a sudden move (admittedly quite difficult in high heels) might cause your suntan to become uneven…and that is sooooo uncool.

Beach buskers…ummmm…if you are going to serenade a woman on her sun-lounge with the most appalling, excruciating and terrible rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ (with guitar accompaniment), you may want to check first that she is not an opera singer. But thanks all the same for the entertainment. You were so very, very bad that I almost enjoyed your performance. Note to self; if I sing really, really badly in the future will I get paid more because people feel sorry for me??!!

Polignano a Mare

Polignano a Mare

If you are a non Italian speaker the most important phrase you can learn is “NO, I don’t want to buy a sarong.” If you are really studious you could expand this phrase to “NO, I don’t want to buy a sarong in black, a bracelet, a sarong in green, an umbrella, a sarong in purple, a dog that can say ‘ti amo’ while it’s ears flap up and down, a blue sarong, a yellow submarine, a sarong in any f’ing colour.” The really clever should learn all the above in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Russian and Urdu…because the salesman’s linguistic abilities know no limits. Better still, forget the above and pretend you are deaf and blind, thereby avoiding a raised blood pressure on vacation. And try not to constantly think what a pity it is that no one is trying to sell you a nice, cold bottle of pinot grigio!

The smaller and rockier the beach the more money it will cost to spend the day there. Foreigners will be charged more on principal. The man who rents the sun beds will randomly decide a price based on the size of your bikini.

The ocean is not for swimming. It is in fact for standing in chatting on your i-phone or in large family groups in your designer sunglasses, preferably whilst eating focaccia or pizza.

Water sports are forbidden. Bats, balls and frisbees ruffle the mirror-like surface of the water causing you to momentarily lose sight of your reflection.

And finally, it is acceptable to laugh at the foreign girl from Australia when she jumps out of the water every time a piece of seaweed floats by and says, “Shit. Sorry. I thought that was a shark!”



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